Often presented as a pre-requisite for democratization, autocrats often weaponize constitutions and legal provisions for their political gains. My research seeks to understand better the conditions under which autocrats decide to rely on a specific institution to remain in power and the implications of these institutional reforms on regime stability.

Dissertation project

Judicial dissent: The role of courts in electoral disputes

Abstract: If the literature on courts in competitive authoritarian regimes has typically viewed the judiciary as a mere window dressing tool or an instrument used by the incumbent to remain in power, empirical evidence from sub-Saharan Africa challenges this assumption. In the last four years, both the Malawian and Kenyan Supreme Courts have ruled against the incumbent and ordered a presidential election rerun. These sparks of judicial autonomy deserve greater scholarly attention. These instances strongly suggest that courts can play a fundamental role not only in consolidating authoritarian control but also, and importantly, democratic development. Hence, my dissertation project aims at identifying the conditions under which judicial dissent occurs during electoral disputes in electoral autocracies. In other words, when – and to what effect – does the judiciary side with the opposition, and why? I argue that institutional reforms can incentivize judges to be more assertive. Effective institutional reforms foster de jure independence and mobilize political actors and civil society members, thus putting the judiciary under scrutiny. In addition to exploring how institutional rules predict the probability of judicial dissent, my dissertation also considers how activists and opposition movements exploit such rules to integrate courts into their movements and win electoral cases. To test my theory and exploit sources of institutional variation, I adopt a mixed-method approach that combines micro-level observational studies using original data and qualitative evidence gathered from archival work and semi-structured interviews conducted in Kenya and Senegal.


Gerzso, Thalia, and Nicolas van de Walle. “The Politics of Legislative Expansion in Africa.” Comparative Political Studies (2022): 00104140221074277.

Abstract: The number of seats in national legislatures around the world rarely changes, Yet, in Africa, a substantial number of countries have regularly increased the number of seats, and these increases have become more common in recent years. Previous research on political offices in Africa’s electoral autocracies has suggested that their numbers and increases are motivated in large part by patronage and clientelist considerations. Is this also the case for national legislatures? Curiously, there is virtually no political science scholarship on legislature size, either in Africa or in the rest of the world. Using a mixture of descriptive statistics to present a new database, as well as econometrics and three case studies, we find that legislative expansion can be causally linked to executive branch manipulation.  Presidents have found it politically useful to expand the size of African legislatures and add a second chamber in order to weaken the legislature and/or control it.

Book Chapters:

“Legal Strategies: Constitutional, Administrative, Judicial and Socio-discursive lawfare,” in Arriola et al. (eds), Democratic Backsliding in Africa? Autocratization, Resilience, and Contention (with Siri Gloppen and Nic van de Walle – Forthcoming at Oxford University Press).

The Potential of Mixed-Methods for Qualitative Research, “in Cyr and Goodman (eds), Doing Good Qualitative Research (with Rachel Beatty Riedl – Forthcoming at Oxford University Press).

Working papers:

A Two-Headed Creature: Bicameralism in African Autocracies

Abstract: Since the 1990s, 17 African states have added a second chamber to their legislatures. This sudden trend is puzzling for two reasons. First, bicameral legislatures have been decreased by 33%. Second, although upper houses often aim to improve democratic representation, descriptive statistics suggest that these institutional changes occurred primarily in electoral autocracies. What does explain this resurgence of bicameral legislatures in Africa? I argue that incumbents introduce a second chamber when the opposition takes control of the legislature. To assess my argument, I adopt a mixed method approach. First, I use a generalized linear mixed model with a binomial distribution and a logit link that leverages original data to show the association between the upper chamber’s strength and the creation of an upper house. To show how the causal mechanism operates, I conduct four case studies – Côte d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Senegal – that exploit variation on the dependent variable.

Judicial Resistance During Electoral Disputes: Evidence from Kenya

Abstract: Over the last decades, political actors have increasingly challenged electoral results before a court of law. If the literature has studied electoral disputes in Western democracies, this judicialization of elections can also be observed in electoral autocracies. Because the literature on authoritarian courts often sees courts as mere black-box used by incumbents to remain in power, it assumes that courts will always rule in favor of the ruling party despite evidence of electoral fraud. Evidence from Africa suggests otherwise, however. In Malawi, for instance, the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the presidential election in 2020 enabled the opposition to win the election. These sparks of judicial resistance deserve our scholarly attention as they have the power to start the democratization process. Hence, this paper seeks to understand the conditions under which courts side with the opposition. I argue that institutional reforms incentivize courts to resist the incumbent’s pressure and to rule in favor of the opposition during electoral disputes under two conditions. First, institutional reforms must reinforce de jure independence by enacting effective legal and constitutional mechanisms that prevent the executive branch from undermining the separation of power. Second, institutional reforms must mobilize civil society and political actors by granting them tools to engage in strategic and repeated litigation. I test this novel theory by leveraging original qualitative and quantitative data from Kenya. Using process-tracing, I show how the 2010 constitution created an environment where the courts had no other choice than to annul the election of the incumbent – President Kenyatta – in 2017.

Institutional Trust in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission

Abstract: Some evidence suggests that electoral commissions enjoy a high degree of trust among the public, even in autocratic settings where they are widely seen by experts as tools of the ruling regime. With Zimbabwe being one of the most authoritarian regimes in the region, one could expect the Zimbabweans to be wary of their electoral commissions. Nevertheless, Afrobarometer surveys have shown that most respondents trust the electoral commission. Hence one may wonder what does shape people’s attitudes towards electoral commissions in an authoritarian regime. Are institutions that are mere window dressing effective at increasing trust in the most autocratic settings but a potential source of dissatisfaction under more competitive forms of authoritarianism? To solve this puzzle, I elaborate on a micro-theory of institutional trust. I argue that individuals’ experiences with the electoral commission shape their attitude towards it. If individuals witness forms of electoral manipulation engineered by the executive branch, individuals will be less likely to trust the commission. To assess my arguments systematically, I use evidence from surveys of more than 4,800 respondents conducted in Zimbabwe by Afrobarometer in 2012 and 2014. I apply a generalized difference-in-difference framework to test whether voters who directly experience electoral manipulation are more likely to distrust the electoral commission. 

In Progress

How do Domestic Legal Institutions affect Public Support for Judicial Power? Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa (with Sivaram Cheruvu)

Abstract: The fate and quality of modern liberal democracy are critically dependent on the exercise of judicial power. Lacking the power of the purse or sword, however, the judiciary is uncommonly dependent on public support to establish and maintain such power. Although scholars have written extensively about the political factors affecting how the judiciary obtains such support, they have seldom explored whether the institutional configuration of the judiciary affects public support. We argue that some institutional features inherited from colonial times still affect individuals’ attitudes towards the judicial system today. More specifically, the presence of institutions that serve judicial functions but are primarily composed of state bureaucrats can affect public support for judicial power since citizens are more likely to view such institutions as instruments of the state as opposed to protecting them from the state. Because of its colonial history, we exploit institutional variation in sub-Saharan Africa to test our theory. Whereas in Anglophone Africa courts are composed of professional magistrates, most Francophone African countries have a fragmented court system where administrative courts – or Conseil d’État – are composed of state bureaucrats. Using survey data from Afrobarometer, we first leverage Senegal’s removal of its Conseil d’État in 2008 to explore citizens’ support for judicial power before and after the reform in a difference-in-differences design. Second, since the presence of a Conseil d’État is correlated with a state’s colonial history, we use an instrumental variables design to provide evidence of our argument’s generalizability across countries. We find that having a conseil d’état does not affect public support for horizontal power over the president but does lead to less support for vertical power over the people and lower trust in courts. This article makes important contributions. First, our article shows how formal institutions can shape individuals’ perceptions. Our piece demonstrates the importance of institutional configurations of the judiciary for vertical judicial power over citizens while providing evidence that citizens in countries with civil law institutions have robust support for horizontal power over the executive. Second, our article contributes to the historical institutional literature by showing how colonial legacies still affect African politics today. Finally, our findings can inform democratic institution-building efforts worldwide by identifying which institutional configurations are more likely to have public support.

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